There has to be unpredictability and jeopardy and every English league bar the Premier League has plenty of both…
Many of us know that the best league in England (who could be so arrogant as to claim ‘in the world’?) is the Championship, due to kick
off on Friday with Huddersfield taking on Burnley.
I wrote a whole book about what ‘best’ means when defining football. Is it entertainment, is it excitement, is it the ability to pass the ball, shoot, tackle or save? There’s no definitive answer, of course, but an important quality has to be unpredictability of results and that’s where the Championship (and other lower leagues) comes into its own.
Before the season starts, none of us have a clue who will finish in the top six places in the Championship. It could realistically be about 20 of the 24 teams. While the parachute payments are distorting the finances of the league and need abolishing before further reducing the league’s innate unpredictability, there is still plenty of flux in the Championship.
Of last season’s relegated teams, none of Watford, Burnley or Norwich look guaranteed to go back up, with squads filleted of their best players and largely not yet replaced. And all three have new managers who may or may not be a success. They certainly have an advantage but we’ve seen advantages squandered many times before, with often less resourced but better coached teams, such as Sheffield United and recently Brentford and Nottingham Forest gaining promotion.
Remarkably, a team can lose 12 games in a season and still get promoted; a team can win 14 and still get relegated. And transformations happen all the time. Huddersfield finished third last season, but 20th the season before. When Norwich were promoted as champions in 2018/19, they’d finished 14th the previous season, second-placed Sheffield United were 10th the previous year.
In 2020/21, Nottingham Forest finished 17th before their fourth place got them promoted through the play-offs. This is the proper functioning of the league as a competition.
If you’re a fan of a club in the Championship – as I am – the great thrill is knowing that there is always a possibility that this season might be a promotion season, but just as importantly, that you might do well by your own standards, whatever they may be.
The fact that four early losses won’t end your season in September, is also a great positive. Even halfway through the season, if you’re languishing in the bottom third, a good run of results can still get you into the play-offs. It gives hope and hope is all any fan really wants.
Hope doesn’t get talked about much these days, when money is first and last in every conversation, but it is the most important thing. Hope is what keeps almost all fans of almost all football clubs, big or small, professional or amateur, coming back for more. That and the sheer habit of being present. Never underestimate the power of just being present.
The Premier League is a different story altogether. Hope for change has been replaced by hope for no change by the top six, eager to protect their status and an acceptance of this reality by the other 14. They’ve formed the top six for five out of the last eight seasons. So we already know, with some certainty, the top six and within that, with even greater certainty, the top two.
Supporting Manchester City and Liverpool must be odd because you can be quite confident that you will finish first or second. If you support Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal or Manchester United, it must be equally odd to already know that you’ll finish anywhere from third to sixth. Thus, the degree of jeopardy for any of these clubs is very limited in a way that it isn’t in any other league in the country. And jeopardy is the underlying warp and weft of football. Without it, you’ve just got exhibition football.
Worrying if you’ll finish third or fourth seems a very narrow platform on which to base your season’s hopes and dreams. But in truth, few seem to be bothered about it, as evidenced by the nearly always full grounds. The days of a more even, democratic top flight are a long way behind us now.
And as for the other 14, well, it’s just about staying in the league in order to do it all over again the following year. Unlike the Championship, whoever finishes 14th knows they will not win the league the following season. Whoever finishes 17th absolutely will not end up fourth in 12 months’ time.
Sustained progress, let alone glory of any sort, is now rarely possible for the 14, at least without prolonged financial splurging over many years and for that to happen requires engaging with cruel and sulphuric rich regimes. Hardly something to lift the neutral’s moral heart.
For those 14, the relegation battle is where their fun really lies now. If you’re not poor enough to go down, it can be a long second half of the season, but if you flirt with relegation, as Everton did last time out, at least you’re in for some excitement.
Many are happy enough to turn up and see their team get walloped by a far richer club, just to see the big stars, hanging on to the belief that maybe this is the day that an upset happens. That seems like thin gruel to me, but what are you going to do? It’s not like you can change anything. We’ve all accepted this is the status quo. It’s been this way for a long time now, so it’s no surprise it has become a largely unchallenged default that 14 are forever in supplication to six, nor that the six rather resent the 14 poncing off their popularity.
I don’t question the possibility of this situation ever changing, just the likelihood. How it is now, is how it is going to be forever, or at least until the six leave for a Super League (please make it happen). There are blips, but disruption to the status quo now only happens when one or more of those big six goes into meltdown through bad management and administration.
Clubs who break into the top six for a season or two don’t so much achieve it, as be gifted the place by a top six clubs’ failure. But it doesn’t last and soon the interloper goes back into the pack.
The big games between the big six, full of big names and big hype, mask the overall decline in competition having a rich elite brings and everyone seems happy enough with that. We all love those big games. Many just ignore most of the other games played between the 14 (TV viewing figures are often poor domestically and globally). Media outlets (like us) struggle to drum up money on the back of those games.
The wealth of the big six clubs and the light from their games dazzles and inevitably has greater media and economic heft than the rest of the league combined, so it’s understandable really.
But if, rather unfashionably, you like increased competition more than increased inevitability, the good news is that the Championship and tiers three, four and five are a very different world and collectively are a more popular attraction in terms of attendances, than the top flight, proving the enduring attraction of leagues which are not, in significant part, a forgone conclusion before a ball is kicked.
So actually, maybe, even accidentally, we’ve got the best of two rather different worlds.